Customers know best;Talkback;Opinion

30th April 1999 at 01:00
Pupils are in a valid position to score teachers' work. We should let them, says Hilary Moriarty

A teacher wrote eloquently on these pages recently about student appraisal of teaching performance ("Do they mean me?" Friday magazine, March 12). It sounded as if it was written out of pain: along with positive responses, the writer, who remained anonymous, had suffered destructive comments which he or she considered "far too subjective to be treated seriously". The writer declared: "I'm not going to change my teaching methods", suggesting that whatever the customers' reaction, teacher knows best.

Refusing to pay attention to what students say about our performance runs counter to a prevailing culture in most other areas of our lives: the customer is king. He knows what he wants, and will complain if he doesn't get it, or take his business elsewhere. Hence the drive to seek information from consumers in order to improve performance. Who better to tell the provider if they're getting it right?

But schools have never liked the idea of asking pupils what they think about the product they receive. Strange really. What does it show? A crippling lack of confidence in what we do and how we do it? Fear that our cosy worlds would be shaken to the core by blunt truths out of the mouths of babes? Or a deep-seated conviction that school is something we rightfully inflict upon children whether they like it or not.

You'd have thought we'd have got around to surveying pupils in the years when appraisal was growing up. But no. Our lack of confidence in our pupils, and possibly our lack of confidence in ourselves, shames us. When the customer has more choice than ever before, we must open the dialogue with pupils, who alone can tell us if our product is worth buying.

A friend working at an American university cheerfully reports that she is assessed by all students in all lectures and tutorials, just as she has the right to assess professors both for the lectures they give and for their input in supervising her training as a teaching assistant.

Of her own performance, she was able to report that students judged her 4.7 (5 is the maximum) for friendliness and approachability, and 4 for being well prepared for lectures.

"The average in this faculty is 3.6 for the first and 3.2 for the second," she says, "so any future employer can see that I'm better than average on people skills, and students like my sessions. Lots of universities won't mind the 4 for preparation because they'll realise that if you're super-prepared but no one comes because you're boring or hostile, that's no good to anyone."

Now that's what I call useful. How refreshing that the appraisee can accept statistical information as valid, and act on it. Even better that she can also see an immediate application for the information: her scores are in a form which other universities will recognise; they will help future employers make up their own minds on her strengths or weaknesses.

The writer of the Friday magazine Talkback complained of subjectivity and the ability of students "to get it wrong". Students have no monopoly there. Appraisers can be equally guilty.

If the Government goes ahead with its plans, all teachers will be subject to annual appraisal upon which their livelihoods will depend. Given the number of teachers, appraisers will see only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of classes we teach every year, and money will follow their findings. Promotions and references already hang on what is actually minimal information held by people who are never on the receiving end of what we do, may be completely out of sympathy with how we do it and may never have liked us personally since the day we stole their favourite chair in the staffroom.

Don't tell me appraisal and assessment by the pupils we teach would be worse, because I don't believe it. And don't tell me we wouldn't actually strive to be better teachers on a daily, hourly basis if pupils were compiling assessments of us, because I don't believe that either. We would teach more effectively, the product would improve, and the management appraiser could almost go back to his office and await the crucial information.

Pupil appraisal of teachers might be the single most effective weapon in the battle to raise standards. Pupils are the customers. Go on, ask them.

Hilary Moriarty is deputy head of The Red Maids' School in Bristol. The views expressed are personal.

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